The City Is a Terrible Place for a Snowy Owl

The DC Snowy owl, which was struck by a bus Thursday, had it coming.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Jan. 31, 2014, 7:59 a.m.

The snowy owl had prob­ably nev­er seen a hu­man be­fore, much less a bus. That is, un­til one hit her.

“Cit­ies are TER­RIBLE places for Snowy Owls.”

The snowy owl that has set up tem­por­ary home in Wash­ing­ton sur­vived the col­li­sion Thursday with a city bus, and has be­come something of a so­cial-me­dia sen­sa­tion with a small de­voted fol­low­ing. As The Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted Thursday, “When told of the in­cid­ent, El­len Paul, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Wash­ing­ton-based Or­ni­tho­lo­gic­al Coun­cil, said: ‘Oh, my God! Don’t tell me this!’ ” The bird is cur­rently in the care of a loc­al wild­life res­cue re­hab cen­ter, and will be re­leased post-con­vales­cence.

After the news hit Thursday I first thought, How did the bird not see the bus com­ing? After all, isn’t it a top-level pred­at­or that reg­u­larly tears small mam­mals in­to bloody pulps? And birds of prey have found un­likely homes in cit­ies. Red-tailed hawks, such as New York’s Pale Male, have traded nat­ur­al cliffs for sky­scrapers and thrived. Why couldn’t this bird?

Curi­ous, I emailed Cor­nell’s Kev­in McGow­an, a bird bio­lo­gist in the uni­versity’s or­ni­tho­logy lab, with the ques­tion, “Are cit­ies good en­vir­on­ments for these creatures?”

He wrote back with the short an­swer “Cit­ies are TER­RIBLE places for Snowy Owls.” That makes sense, con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent bus news, and also in light of the fact that some owls were be­ing shot at to clear them from New-York area air­ports. But I asked for a more com­plete an­swer.

“The thing is snowy owls, where they come from, there’s not much that they are afraid of,” McGow­an ex­plains. But, he ad­ded, “These birds, it’s al­most as if they don’t see people some­times. They’re so un­con­cerned that it just doesn’t hit the cen­ters in their brain that says, ‘Hey! Watch out for that.’ “

Like buses. On the oth­er hand, birds such as crows are su­per anxious and there­fore very well ad­ap­ted for the city. 

And con­sider how far away this bird is from its nat­ive en­vir­on­ment. As McGow­an ex­plains it, these birds won’t breed any­where near the north edge of the Hud­son Bay in Canada, be­cause it isn’t cold enough. As of this writ­ing, it’s minus 9 at the top of the Hud­son Bay, which is warm for this time of year. That far north, “these guys prob­ably had to fly a thou­sand miles be­fore they even saw trees,” McGow­an said.

The birds do mi­grate in the winter, but it’s ex­tremely rare for the spe­cies to be this far south. Most win­ters, snowy owls don’t make it much farther south than the Great Lakes. This is what bird aca­dem­ics call an “in­cur­sion,” in which a great mass of snowy owls fly much farther south than usu­al in the search of food. It hap­pens either be­cause there were a great many owls born re­cently and their com­pet­i­tion for food in the Arc­tic gets tough, or their food sup­ply (ducks, lem­mings) has been di­min­ished. Snowy owls tend to land in areas that re­mind them of the Arc­tic — flat green or white open spaces, like air­ports. Per­haps it was a snow-covered Na­tion­al Mall, then, that lured this bird in­to the city. Once on the Mall, the owl then got lost down­town. And there you have the be­gin­ning of an an­im­ated film. A true bird-out-of-the-Arc­tic story, end­ing in near tragedy. Does she fall in love with a loc­al great horned owl?

The story even holds a les­son for what it takes to make it in the big city.

“It’s not be­ing tame that al­lows you to sur­vive and prosper in an urb­an en­vir­on­ment,” McGow­an says. “It’s be­ing not scared and aware.”

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